The earliest known reference to medicine in pill form dates back to 10th century Arabic medical literature, long after Egyptians were rolling active medicinal agents into breads and clays but some 900 years before the first patent for a tablet was granted in 1843.
Not much about the technology has changed in a millennium of pill production. Each tablet, shaped for swallowing, acts as a carrier of medicine. The active ingredient is typically one-thousandth the volume of the pill, meaning 99.9 percent of a typical pill is essentially filler material or agents that help digest the drug. (It is not, as has been reported, 99.9 percent useless.)
In an attempt to revolutionize the tablet, researchers at the University of Leeds, Durham University, and GlaxoSmithKline are experimenting with dissolving active ingredients into liquid form and using that liquid like ink to print pills to order.
Currently the group says this process only works with 0.5 percent of the medicines used in pills, but they hope to increase this figure to 40 percent.
"Some active ingredients can be dissolved in a liquid, which then behaves like normal ink, so then the process is fairly straightforward," says Nik Kapur of Leeds' School of Mechanical Engineering. "However, when you're working with active ingredients that don't dissolve, the particles of the drug are suspended in the liquid, which creates very different properties and challenges for use within a printing system."
Even when the active ingredients do dissolve, the chief obstacle is size. A medicine droplet is roughly 20 times the size of an ink droplet in a standard ink-jet system. The team is currently investigating how many droplets a tablet can hold, how to adjust the levels of active ingredients in each drop, and how the printing nozzle should be shaped/sized.
If drugs are delivered as ink on the surface of a tablet, Kapur says, they should be faster-acting because the pill wouldn't have to first be broken down for the drug to enter the bloodstream. It might even be possible to print a variety of different drugs onto a single pill, reducing the number of pills people have to swallow, but how those drugs interact would need to be studied closely.
Of course, popping printed pills will change the lives of not only those taking drugs for medicinal purposes but for recreational ones as well, which means counterfeit bills may soon be joined by counterfeit pills.